Nonna and Nonno, then both in their forties, suffered through great loss during those dark years, as did everyone on the island. But they soldiered on, moving forward, looking to ensure that their family of seven children had clothes to wear and food to eat.
During those turbulent times, Nonna would leave her house under the shade of early-morning darkness and make the trip to Naples in search of black-market goods. In the decades before hydrofoils, the ninety-minute trek by boat to Naples from the island seemed to last as long as an ocean crossing, and the big old ships—often working off rationed gas and in constant need of repair—would sometimes stall on the open sea, floating aimlessly for hours on end until a crew member could remedy the problem.
Once in Naples, Nonna would walk the bombed and ruined streets in search of bread, olive oil, coffee, milk, and, on rare occasions, red meat or chicken. She would pay the black marketers in lira and bundle up whatever she was able to purchase in a pouch hidden under her dress. Then, as quickly as she could, she would make her way back to the port for the return trip to Ischia.
It was dangerous and draining work, made more so when both the island and the city of Naples were under Nazi occupation. The Nazis imposed a 10 P.M. curfew, and most of the islanders obeyed the order rather than risk the wrath of the soldiers patrolling the streets and alleys.
But not Nonna.
Two nights a week, Nonna and two others—both men, and longtime family friends—would meet at the highest point of the island, in the borough of Serrara Fontana, where the large vineyard was located. One of the men sat on top of a wooden cart pulled by a mule. Inside the cart were three oak barrels filled with white wine. The wheels of the cart and the hooves of the mules were wrapped in thick rags, to help silence any noise as they began their descent down the slippery stone steps toward the port. It would take them four hours to complete their task, starting at midnight and reaching the harbor before sunup. There, they would be greeted by two men from Naples in a rowboat. The barrels would be transferred from the cart to the rowboat. Once the task was completed, one of the men in the boat would hand over a small wad of lira to Nonna, and then the two would row as slowly and quietly as possible away from the edge of the pier to a motorboat moored three miles offshore. The money Nonna earned was used to purchase black-market clothes for her children and family members in need.
I first heard about Nonna helping to move shipments of black-market wine from Angela Rumore, one of the friends I made during those early weeks on the island. "My grandmother used to tell me the story when I was younger," she said to me as we both walked along the Lido, a long stretch of promenade that faced the sea, the lights from the surrounding islands glistening under the warm blanket of a summer night. "The walk was slow and dangerous. There were Nazis everywhere, and anyone who broke curfew risked getting shot. It was hard work, keeping the cart from making noise, making sure the mule didn't slip on the rocks and grass. It was all downhill, and your Nonna and the others had to walk in bare feet. That made it even scarier. To this day, she never talks about it. The other two did—that's where my mother first heard it, from one of them. But not a word about those nights from your grandmother."
"Why do you think that is?" I asked.
Angela shrugged. She was a year older than me, her brown hair long and streaked blond by the sun, her smile open and warm. "Maybe there are some things she would rather not remember or have to think about," she said. "Some things from that war she would like to forget."
"She could have been killed," I said. "If any of the soldiers saw or heard them. They might have taken them prisoner or, worse, shot and killed them right there on the spot."
"My mother told me it was so bad here during the war and the years after," Angela said, stopping to look out at the lapping waves below. "They were afraid to drink the water because it had been polluted from the bombings and smelled when it came out of the faucets. There was no work for anyone, little food, and no help from Rome or anywhere else. She told me the lucky ones were the ones who died, not the ones who had to live through those years."
* * *
I was eager to hear more about Nonna's exploits during the war years. I knew I would never hear the stories from Nonna herself, so Angela became my primary source. I was at Angela's apartment one afternoon, sitting in her living room, both of us drinking English breakfast tea.
"Your grandmother has really made an impression on you," she said.
"I've never met anyone like her," I said. "I could sit in her dining room and listen to her stories all day. She's a born storyteller. And I bet she's never read a book or a magazine or a newspaper in her life."
"Your Nonna has lived a life that's more interesting than any book you'll read or any story you can find in a paper or a magazine," Angela said. "She's much tougher than she looks and has the courage of a lion. She won't say that about herself. But ask anyone who's heard the stories about her, especially during those war years, and they'll tell you."
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.